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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

General Hospital

General Hospital

At Senigallia 1 NZ General Hospital was established in what had been an Italian children’s health camp; up till a few months previously it had been used as a German military hospital. The buildings, though insufficient for a hospital, enabled many of the amenities of a large civilian hospital to be supplied. Water and electricity were laid on, amenities which had not always been available in the hospitals in Egypt.

The central building had lent itself to conversion to the needs of the administrative, laboratory, X-ray and other departments. It also provided some of the wards. A walk beneath a vine-covered pergola ended at a two-storeyed building used as the surgical block. This block showed more window than wall on all sides and was admirably suited for a hospital building. All other accommodation was provided by tents. New Zealand engineers had worked to provide access roads and other conveniences, while Italian labour had been employed on inside alterations.

The main highway passed the entrance to the hospital, and there was the continual noise of transport moving up to the front line and the droning of aircraft overhead. During the last few weeks of summer and in the early autumn, the staff had enjoyed living in tents by the sea, but when the sea breezes turned to boisterous gales, and heavy rain saturated the ground underfoot, and snow page 30 a week before Christmas left its aftermath of slush, it was another story. Nissen huts were being erected all over the hospital area to replace tents as wards and living quarters.

From the date it opened on this site, early in September 1944, the hospital had been busy with an inrush of patients. The staff always had its unremitting round of duties. To be a good orderly a man needed to be a jack-of-all-trades. For ten hours a day he dealt with recalcitrant primus stoves and kerosene heaters; he acted as a transport mule in the hospital area, carried large bundles of soiled clothing to the linen store, collected the lotions from the dispensary or medical store, brought rations of soap, kerosene, and methylated spirits from the ordnance store, went to the main kitchen for morning and afternoon tea for the patients, carried stretcher patients to operating theatre or X-ray department, and was always at the beck and call of sisters and patients. In between times he managed to obtain on the side many needful extras for the wards.

Voluntary aids now attended to many duties which had fallen to the orderly in pre-1942 days. The nurses made beds, took temperatures, washed patients, worked in the operating theatre and special-diet kitchens, delivered meals, swept and cleaned wards, and helped in the ward kitchens.

Sisters were in charge of the wards of 80 to 100 beds, carrying out professional nursing duties as in civilian life. They co-operated with the medical officers in the treatment of patients, keeping a watchful eye on each man’s progress, maintaining discipline, but always trying to keep their charges contented and comfortable.

When the First Echelon went overseas in January 1940, eighteen sisters of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service sailed with it—a small band of women in a trim uniform of grey and scarlet. On the staffs of the New Zealand military General Hospitals in the Middle East and the Pacific were many more sisters. They, with their reinforcements, brought the total who served overseas to 602, all of them volunteers. By May 1940 more than 1200 nurses from New Zealand hospitals had offered themselves for overseas service.

A sister’s service was seldom dramatic or spectacular. Hers was the life of the hospital unit in which she served, sharing its difficulties and problems, its joys and honours. The standard of treatment and service given to each patient was equal to that of any modern hospital in New Zealand, but the difficulties overcome could be known only by those who had worked long hours to establish and maintain that standard.

No sister in a civilian ward, filled with all modern appliances for the patients’ well-being, ever viewed her surroundings with more pride than did a sister of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service who, with the help of her ward staff and walking patients, fashioned furniture from wooden boxes, discarded tins, and other waste material. Many times a sister’s thoughts, as she stoked a copper fire or tinkered with a temperamental primus that at a critical moment refused to do anything but gush a sooty smoke-screen, must have turned to the hospital she had left, where the gleaming faucets at a touch would pour forth gallons of boiling water and where the behaviour of the steam sterilisers never gave a moment’s worry. Nor, as she endeavoured to work in a duty room that also served as the doctor’s office, dispensary, linen room, and perhaps sterilising room as well, could she be blamed if at times she thought with longing of the hospital at home, where there was a room and a place for everything. No, in a military hospital it was no press-button life, but for the sisters who watched their units become efficient hospitals, it was a life that had its rewards.

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The medical officers were qualified doctors; many were recognised experts in specialised branches of medicine and surgery. Upon them rested the responsibility for the conduct of the hospital, and their science and skill paved the way for the recovery of so many men to full health and strength. The General Hospitals admitted an annual total of sick and wounded equal to the numerical strength of the 2nd NZEF. The greater proportion were sick, but during the war there were over 16,000 wounded and an almost equal number accidentally injured—all making demands on the surgeons. Throughout the war there was a steady advance in the technique of surgical treatment and the use of drugs, and a surgeon had always to keep abreast of the latest curative developments and apply them as occasion arose.

* * *

‘On 7 January 1945 some of us moved out of 1 NZ General Hospital on our way to 3 NZ General Hospital, 300 miles farther down the Adriatic coast at Bari. We travelled by a British hospital ship, staffed by English men and women of the RAMC.* We were treated very well by the Tommies during our short trip with them.

Bari was reached next morning, and we travelled the short distance to 3 NZ General Hospital by ambulance. We got into bed just in time for lunch. By this time my appetite was returning. This hospital was one of a group situated in what had been planned as an Italian Polyclinic. The medical treatment was first-class as expected. Facilities were as good as those in any civilian hospital. Just a few days before my arrival the hospital had admitted its 40,000th patient. I was one of 900 patients there.’

The British, Indian, South African, and New Zealand hospitals were accommodated in a very extensive group of buildings at Bari, designed as a medical school and hospital centre for the whole of Southern Italy. In November 1943, 3 NZ General Hospital took over part of one block from a British Casualty Clearing Station. This was ready for use, but the main block allotted to the New Zealanders was only a framework with unfinished floors and walls, and with very few glazed windows. Many of the casements were bricked up and there were no fittings for water and sanitation. Demobilised and undisciplined Italian troops were in possession and the building was in a filthy state. A transformation into a well-equipped hospital provided with all the essentials of modern cleanliness and sanitation was effected.

Third NZ General Hospital had come from Tripoli, where it had been a tented hospital clustered round an old fort. There, fittings from a sunken hospital ship in the harbour had provided extra equipment: the capacity of New Zealanders to improvise and adapt had produced first-class hospitals in all situations.

* * *

‘On 15 January I tried to use crutches but my good leg was too weak to hold me. I was graded and placed on the list of invalids for return to New Zealand.

‘We embarked at Taranto on 20 January 1945 on the NZ Hospital Ship Maunganui and from then onwards all was a pleasure. The treatment, food, and general atmosphere of the Maunganui were excellent and I will always have pleasant memories of the contacts I have experienced with members of the New Zealand Medical Services.’

* Royal Army Medical Corps